Too Emotional to Go to Space — 'Lucy in the Sky' Reinforces Negative Stereotypes

Returning to everyday life after looking at our planet from orbit is a struggle for astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in the new space thriller "Lucy In The Sky."
Returning to everyday life after looking at our planet from orbit is a struggle for astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in the new space thriller "Lucy In The Sky." (Image credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

"Lucy in the Sky," which was released on Friday, Oct. 4, had an opportunity to tell the story of a woman astronaut going through the psychological challenges that can affect those who've gone to space and been changed by the experience. 

Unfortunately, in my opinion, while the film was a fun watch, Lucy missed the mark. To me, the film highlighted stereotypes about women, especially women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and in the space sector, when it could have pushed against them. 

"Lucy in the Sky," tells the story of fictional character Lucy Cola (played by Natalie Portman), who, after her first flight to space with NASA's Space Shuttle program, feels immensely changed by the experience, though she works to maintain a cheerful, flawless exterior to both the NASA psychologist and to her husband (played by Dan Stevens). 

Related: 'Lucy in the Sky' Trailer Quotes Apollo 11's Michael Collins, Orion

But her mental health seems to quickly devolve as she engages in an affair with Jon Hamm's character, Mark Goodwin; fails to get a seat on the next flight after months of rigorous training because of erratic behavior; and ends up in a final confrontation with Goodwin and fellow astronaut Erin Eccles (played by Zazie Beetz), with whom Goodwin is also having an affair. 

The film is described as simply "loosely based on a true story," but to anyone who has seen it and has a grasp on recent space history, it is obvious that the plot is loosely based on the very public breakdown of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, which took place in 2007. 

Now, while the film is only loosely based on those events, at first I was struck by the thought that there have been many incredible women in the astronaut corps who have had strange, exciting, film-worthy stories. Why refocus the world's attention on this unfortunate moment in space history, when the stories of astronauts like Sally Ride and Mae Jemison have yet to make it to the mainstream box office? 

Aside from the loosely-based, real-world inspiration for the storyline, Lucy's character quickly begins to fulfill gender stereotypes that do a disservice to the portrayal of women in the space sector. First, when the audience is introduced to the group of astronauts training with the hopes of being chosen for the next flight, Lucy immediately finds herself in a spat with Eccles, a novice astronaut. 

Now, Eccles' character is likely inspired by the "other woman" who Nowak's boyfriend had an affair with. But, especially since the confusing conclusion of the film sees Cola targeting Goodwin over Eccles, this spontaneous jealousy on their introduction seems unnecessary, and doesn't add much except to enforce the stereotype of women being jealous of and in competition with one another. 

Later in the film, as Lucy's mental health is rapidly devolving,— there is an incident in the underwater neutral buoyancy lab, erratic behavior in her ongoing affair with Goodwin etc. — after her time in space, my main issue with the film's portrayal of Portman's character takes center stage: Lucy's increasingly "bizarre" behavior was chalked up to her character being "too emotional" to return to space, and she is rejected from consideration for the next Shuttle flight. 

Now, I see how the movie could have been aiming to show how powerful figures often try to diminish the accomplishments of and condescend to women by saying they are too emotional. But that's not the tone that came across as an audience member in the theater. Instead of being clear that those words were coming from a place of bias, it came across as fact, as it sparked Cola to spiral even further. 

To me, the film seemed to only reinforce that Cola was, in fact, too emotional to return to space and had gone "crazy," another term historically used against women. 

This movie could have given a new perspective to Nowak's real-life circumstances, perhaps changing how we view the events from 2007. The story could have remained fictional, but making it clear that Cola being deemed "too emotional" to return to space was a derisive moment and that the treatment of her mental health in the program was, in fact, lacking and biased. Unfortunately, while the movie isn't entirely problematic and is actually a fun watch, it felt like a let down because of what it could have been. 

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.